By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Mar. 28) – When discussing the post-Stanley Cup years here in town, it is generally acknowledged that the “lost decade” of the 1980s under Harold Ballard represents the deepest valley in Maple Leafs history. And for those, like myself, who remember the Ballard rot, it is difficult to pose a counter-argument.
But, what about this very moment?
Is it possible to channel nearly 45 years into a single thought, thereby determining the actual low point since May 2, 1967, the night George Armstrong last raised the Stanley Cup in blue and white? If so, has the environment surrounding the Leafs ever been as apparently-hopeless as it is right now? Has there evolved such complete apathy on the ice and in the stands at home games at any point since ’67?
Remember, in the ’80s, a team could make the playoffs with 52 points, as a horrid Leaf outfit did in 1987-88. Even a dreadful club in this city could generate excitement by performing beyond expectation in the Stanley Cup tournament. The ’86 Leafs demolished Chicago in three consecutive games of a best-of-five opening round and then extended St. Louis to the seven-game limit in the quarterfinals. Toronto finished 29 points behind the Blackhawks that year and 26 points behind the Blues. In ’87, the Leafs knocked off St. Louis in the first round and took a 3-1 series lead against Detroit in the Conference semifinal. One more win and Leafs would have played Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in the Cup semis. But, the Red Wings roared back to win three straight and the series in seven.
Point here is that a league in which 16 of 21 teams qualified for the playoffs lent itself to false excitement – which current Leaf fans might agree is better than no excitement at all.
THIS IS ABOUT AS CLOSE AS PHIL KESSEL CHOSE TO VENTURE TOWARD THE CAROLINA NET ON TUESDAY, AS LEAFS WERE OFFICIALLY ELIMINATED FROM PLAYOFF CONTENTION FOR A SEVENTH CONSECUTIVE SEASON IN A 3-0 LOSS TO THE HURRICANES.
Has a general manager in the post-’67 era encountered a situation that presents as much of a conflict as that facing Brian Burke? Think about it: the Leafs are going to have a top-five selection at June’s NHL draft in Pittsburgh and as silly as it may sound, the most prudent course is for Burke to make that pick; acquire some goaltending depth (once again), and patiently hope that other youthful components of the organization develop. Of course, that would probably mean missing the playoffs for another season or two and few hockey observers believe Burke has that luxury.
The alternative is for the GM to embark on a job-saving expedition. That would entail such moves as trading the number-one pick (and heaven-knows how many NHL and minor-league prospects) for a “quick-fix” like Rick Nash. It would serve to titillate the despondent fan-base, allowing Burke and Co. to whip such hungered souls into a lather by exulting over an “incomparable top-three” of Nash, Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. Nash, of course, would have to sanction the move, as per his contract license.
If there is something in-between the aforementioned, Burke would do well to find it. Though it’s currently fashionable to dump on the Leafs boss, he didn’t have a hell of a lot to work with when he assumed control of the club in November 2008. And while the team is no further ahead nearly 3 1/2 years later, it does have some youthful hope.
Jake Gardiner, Matt Frattin, Cody Franson, Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Brad Ross, Greg McKegg, Jussi Rynnas and, yes, even struggling Luke Schenn remain potential building-blocks. Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Lupul, Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and (if Burke re-signs him) Nikolai Kulemin are (or have been) better-than-average pieces. So, it may not be the complete disaster it appears in Leaf Land. And it’s the reason I still advocate a steady, conventional build – one that would ask for more of this market’s legendary patience.
That may be plausible. But, we cannot foretell the direction of new ownership. Though it’s understandable that any proprietor of a hockey club in this city would wish to avail itself of the untold millions being left behind in playoff revenue, ordering another acceleration of the process will almost surely backfire and extend the Leafs’ Cup drought to well beyond half-a-century. If that happens, the team will have come full-circle from the Ballard years.
So, we ask again: Has it ever been as challenging to be a fan of the Maple Leafs?
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My photo-review (below) of the official “last breath” against Carolina:
CARS WERE MOVING AND THE SUN WAS SHINING AN HOUR BEFORE PUCK-DROP (ABOVE), AS THE HANGAR PREPARED FOR ITS LAST MEANINGFUL HOUR OF THE 2011-12 SEASON.
LEAFS APPEARED FOR THE PRE-GAME WARM-UP (ABOVE) AMID THE USUAL BAND OF WORSHIPERS.
PATRICK DWYER (39) AND ERIC STAAL (12) APPEARED TO BE DEEP IN PRAYER (ABOVE) WHILE EX-LEAF TIM BRENT (37 BELOW) WAS ENJOYING A RETURN TO HIS HOME TOWN.
ANOTHER EX-LEAF, JIRI TLUSTY (ABOVE), HAS 17 GOALS THIS SEASON FOR CAROLINA.
JUSSI JOKINEN OF THE HURRICANES EMERGES FROM THE CORNER (ABOVE).
ERIC STAAL (TOP) IS EXACTLY THE KIND OF CENTRE-ICE STUD THE LEAFS ARE LACKING. DION PHANEUF (BOTTOM) SPENT TIME TOWARD END OF THE WARM-UP STRETCHING AND GABBING WITH HURRICANES’ BACK-UP GOALIE BRIAN BOUCHER – TEAMMATES BRIEFLY IN CALGARY LATE IN 2005-06, PHANEUF’S ROOKIE NHL SEASON.
OUR NATIONAL FLAG IS UNFURLED ON THE SOUTH SIDE OF THE AIR CANADA CENTRE DURING NATIONAL ANTHEM.
REFEREE MIKE LEGGO DROPS THE PUCK (ABOVE) BETWEEN MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI OF THE LEAFS AND BRANDON SUTTER OF CAROLINA, AND HURRICANES WASTE NO TIME GOING ON THE ATTACK. LEAFS COUNTER (BELOW) AGAINST HURRICANES’ DEFENSIVE TANDEM OF JONI PITKANEN (25) AND JAMIE McBAIN (4).
TYLER BOZAK STRIKES FORE-CHECKING POSE (ABOVE) WITH CAROLINA DEFENSEMAN BRYAN ALLEN STANDING BEHIND VETERAN GOALIE CAM WARD. HURRICANES COACH – AND ONE-TIME LEAFS CENTRE – KIRK MULLER WATCHES ACTION FROM BEHIND THE BENCH (BELOW) AS ANOTHER EX-LEAF, JIRI TLUSTY (19), LOOKS ON.
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE-LEFT: LEAFS DEMORALIZED STATE IS AGAIN EVIDENT IN SHOT-CLOCK 12 MINUTES INTO THE GAME; STAAL CHATS WITH REFEREE TOM KOWAL DURING STOPPAGE IN PLAY; WARD SKATES TO THE CAROLINA BENCH AND HAS A WORD WITH BOUCHER DURING A TV BREAK.
AS JONAS GUSTAVSSON STRUCK HIS BEST “BUTTERFLY” POSE (ABOVE), ROOKIE JUSSI RYNNAS (BELOW) HAD NO IDEA HE’D LATER BE MAKING HIS LEAFS DEBUT. RYNNAS WAS CALLED UP FROM THE AHL TORONTO MARLIES ON MONDAY AFTERNOON WHEN IT WAS DETERMINED JAMES REIMER COULD NOT DRESS.
LEADING 1-0, THE HURRICANES APPEARED TO HIT THE CROSSBAR BEHIND GUSTAVSSON IN THE DYING MOMENTS OF THE FIRST PERIOD. THE SCOREBOARD OPERATOR AT THE ACC MUST HAVE SEEN A REPLAY OF THE SHOT BECAUSE HE WASTED NO TIME IN POSTING A SECOND CAROLINA GOAL (ABOVE).
PHANEUF TALKED WITH REFEREE KOWAL (ABOVE-LEFT) DURING VIDEO-REVIEW OF THE PLAY – QUICKLY DETERMINED TO BE A GOAL BY BRENT, AS SIGNALED BY MIKE LEGGO. BRENT IS MOBBED BY HIS TEAMMATES AND THEN WATCHES HAPPILY FROM THE BENCH.
GRABOVSKI AND JOKINEN FACE OFF (ABOVE) TO BEGIN SECOND PERIOD.
COULD THIS CLUNKER BE THE LAST LEAFS GOAL GIVEN UP BY GUSTAVSSON? YET ANOTHER EX-TORONTO PLAYER – DEFENSEMAN JAY HARRISON – BEAT GUSTAVSSON WITH A RIDICULOUSLY EASY SHOT JUST 37 SECONDS INTO THE MIDDLE FRAME (ABOVE AND BELOW).
THE SOFT MARKER SPELLED THE END FOR GUSTAVSSON AND THE BEGINNING FOR RYNNAS, WHO ADJUSTED HIS GEAR AT BENCH (ABOVE-LEFT) AND RECEIVED GOOD WISHES FROM GUSTAVSSON ON HIS WAY TO THE GOAL (BELOW).
THE MONSTER COULD ONLY WATCH AND WONDER (ABOVE) AS RYNNAS GOT HIS FIRST TASTE OF THE NHL.
THOUGH IT SEEMED A RARITY, LEAFS DID CROSS THE HURRICANES BLUE-LINE NOW AND THEN – MATT LOMBARDI STRUGGLING WITH HARRISON (ABOVE), THEN LETTING FLY FROM THE POINT (BELOW) ON A TORONTO POWERPLAY.
LATE IN THE PERIOD, STAAL COMPARED STICKS (ABOVE-LEFT) IN FRONT OF A CURIOUS HARRISON; LEAFS LINE OF GRABOVSKI, CLARKE MacARTHUR AND MATT FRATTIN HUDDLED.
TWO OF THE BEST GUYS IN THE HOCKEY BROADCAST INDUSTRY: LEAFS TV ANALYST GREG MILLEN (ABOVE-LEFT) AND HURRICANES LEGENDARY RADIO VOICE CHUCK KAITON.
WORKERS PREPARE ACC ICE FOR THIRD PERIOD (ABOVE) WHILE BRIAN BURKE AND SON, PATRICK, IMPART MESSAGE ON VIDEO-BOARD (BELOW), SAYING “IF YOU CAN PLAY, YOU CAN PLAY” – A TRIBUTE, WIDELY SUPPORTED THROUGHOUT THE NHL, TO THE LATE BRENDAN BURKE FOR ANNOUNCING HE WAS GAY JUST PRIOR TO BEING KILLED IN AN AUTO ACCIDENT IN FEBRUARY 2010.
JUSSI RYNNAS (ABOVE) DID NOT ALLOW A GOAL IN HIS LEAFS DEBUT. CAM WARD (BELOW) DIDN’T ALLOW A GOAL – PERIOD – RECORDING HIS FIFTH SHUT-OUT OF THE SEASON.
STAAL, LINESMAN GREG DEVORSKI AND GRABOVSKI WAIT AT CENTRE-ICE (ABOVE) AS FELLOW LINESMAN STEVE BARTON ATTENDS TO AN ISSUE NEAR THE TORONTO GOAL.
FANS WEARING LEAF JERSEYS FROM A BETTER TIME (ABOVE-RIGHT) WATCH THE GAME, AND THEN CLEAR OUT WITH MORE THAN 10 MINUTES REMAINING (BELOW).
THERE WERE NO ANSWERS – ONLY FRUSTRATION – AT LEAFS BENCH (ABOVE).
THE END IS NEAR FOR THE 2011-12 LEAFS (ABOVE), AND BOTH TEAMS LEAVE ICE (BELOW).
HURRICANES’ (AND FORMER LEAFS-TV) HOST BOB HARWOOD INTERVIEWS FORWARD TUOMO RUUTU AFTER THE GAME (ABOVE), OUTSIDE THE VISITORS’ DRESSING ROOM. INSIDE THE ROOM (BELOW), WARD ANSWERS QUESTIONS ABOUT HIS WHITE-WASH.
EX-LEAF BRIGADE ON THE HURRICANES (CLOCK-WISE FROM ABOVE-LEFT): JAY HARRISON, TIM BRENT, COACH KIRK MULLER AND JIRI TLUSTY.
RANDY CARLYLE TRIED AGAIN TO MAKE SENSE OF HIS HOCKEY CLUB IN POST-GAME GATHERING WITH REPORTERS (ABOVE AND BELOW), BUT TO NO AVAIL.
THAT’S ALL SHE WROTE: ACC WILL BE DARK AGAIN AT PLAYOFF TIME THIS SPRING.
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